By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
The Havre school board will vote on whether to join an education coalition that has filed a lawsuit claiming the Montana Legislature has failed to adequately fund public education in the state.
The board voted Tuesday night to take action at the Aug. 12 school board meeting, after hearing a presentation from Jack Copps, executive director of the Montana Quality Education Coalition.
"What we are really about is making sure the state of Montana once again becomes a reliable funding partner" for education, Copps told the board. "Simply said, we don't believe the local property tax base can carry the burden for public education."
The coalition's lawsuit, filed in state District court in September of 2002, hinges on Article 10 of Montana's constitution, which says, "The legislature shall provide a basic system of free quality public elementary and secondary schools. ... It shall fund and distribute in an equitable manner to the school districts the state's share of the cost of the basic elementary and secondary school system."
Copps told the board that transcripts of the 1972 constitutional convention that produced the Montana Constitution reveal that delegates had specific ideas of how much state education funding was adequate. At that time, he said, they felt a state contribution of 65 percent of the cost of public education was not enough.
"They determined at the constitutional convention that 65 percent wasn't adequate. We're at 60 percent," Copps said, adding that the number has been dropping every year. He said that has forced school districts to cut programs and teacher salaries, and has reduced the state's ability to recruit and retain teachers.
If successful, the lawsuit would mandate the Legislature to conduct a study to define a "basic system of quality education," the components and delivery of a basic system, and the state's share in providing that system. The suit does not ask the court to impose specific education funding levels on the Legislature.
Copps said he believes the study would lead to greater public input into public education in Montana, and ultimately, more adequate state funding levels.
"My understanding is if the Legislature undertakes this study, there will be large numbers of Montanans that will have the opportunity to express their thoughts about what K through 12 education should be in Montana," he said. That will lead to more state funding, he said.
Copps said the court will hear the case on Jan. 20 and that he is confident it will be appealed to the Montana Supreme Court.
"We would expect the Supreme Court decision before the 2005 legislative session," he said.
If it decides to join MQEC, HPS would not be a plaintiff in the case, but it would help pay for the lawsuit, Trustee Judy Bricker said.
Member school districts contribute money annually to help pay for the lawsuit, Copps said. If its enrollment remains below 2,000 students next year, Havre Public Schools would pay $5,000 next year, according to materials provided by Copps.
"Obviously this is not an easy decision for districts to make," Copps told the board.
"A suit that moves to the Supreme Court is very expensive," he said. "We can only accomplish that because we have a large number of school districts on board."
Bricker said after the meeting that unless she hears a compelling reason why the school district shouldn't join MQEC, she would vote to join.
Bricker said the cost of the membership to the district was a consideration, but that the risk of doing nothing is too high.
"But in the likelihood of everything else failing, what is the cost to our students if we don't take a stand?" Bricker said. "Ultimately who pays the biggest price is going to be our kids."
Trustee Todd Hanson said he wants to make sure the Legislature would respond to a mandate from the courts.
Hanson said he hopes the new K-12 public school renewal commission over the next month will show whether the Legislature is willing to cooperate. The commission, established earlier this spring by House Bill 736, will bring together legislators - including Senate President Bob Keenan and House Speaker Doug Mood - with some of the state's top educators.
The commission's first meeting is Friday.
HPS Superintendent Kirk Miller, who will serve on the commission as chairman of the state Board of Public Education, said the commission will "absolutely" give a good indication of how open the Legislature would be to a judicial mandate to re-examine its role in public education.
More than 90 Montana school districts - representing about 60 percent of Montana's public school enrollment - are members of MQEC, as well as several education organizations like the Montana School Boards Association, Copps said.